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With Puerto Rico in chaos, families here donate, fret, and wait for word

Alfred Lubrano, Jeff Gammage, Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, September 28, 2017, 6:18 PM

Thousands of people evacuating Puerto Rico line up to get on a cruise ship in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017.

They dial the island, but no one ever answers.

They fill donation buckets in Kensington with nickels to pay for rice, though they barely eat themselves.

They drive themselves crazy imagining dehydrating cousins thrusting out their tongues to drink rainwater in the wrecked towns.

For the more than 134,000 people of Puerto Rican origin living in Philadelphia, as well as the 24,200 in Camden, daily life can be a torment as they fret over family and friends wallowing in the catastrophic aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

“It’s awful,” said Jose Ortiz-Pagan, 33, a Puerto Rico-born artist who came here seven years ago. He hasn’t been able to speak with his father, grandmother, or cousins. “We can barely sleep, all day worrying.”

Still, the people of the island diaspora say they never lost heart, taking pride in the popular hashtag proliferating on social media: #PuertoRicoSelevanta — Puerto Rico will rise again.

To aid the ascendance, people in one of the poorest stretches of the United States donated about $50,000 to Concilio, the oldest Latino nonprofit in Philadelphia, according to Bonnie Camarda, director of partnership for the Salvation Army in eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

In Philadelphia, community groups including Concilio and Taller Puertorriqueño have joined forces under the banner of Unidos PA PR to gather donations and push for assistance to people on the island. Concilio, founded in 1962, has long been an advocate and voice for the community.

And Camarda’s office on North Broad Street filled a shipping container donated by the Philadelphia Coca-Cola Bottling Co. with 20 pallets of water, ready-to-eat meals, cleaning supplies, hygiene kits, and generators. The container supplies were underwritten by donations from people around Philadelphia, many from church organizations, according to Bob Myers, Salvation Army director of disaster services for eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware.

Placed on a ship in the Philadelphia port Thursday morning, the material should get to the island next week.

The benefactors have little to spare. They help because “Puerto Ricans are some of the most prideful people, never giving up,” said Julia Rivera, external affairs director of Congreso de Latinos Unidos in Kensington, a multiservice nonprofit that has set up buckets to collect money at the agency.

“Even the poor are trying to help,” she said. “It’s amazing that they give their coins, whatever they have.”

Beyond money, people are willing to give of themselves. “My duty is on the island,” said Charito Morales, a registered nurse who volunteers her time feeding drug addicts in Kensington. She said she and nine other nurses are on standby for flights to the island, where she was born and where an overflowing dam threatens her hometown of Quebradillas.

“I know my mother is alive, but I haven’t heard from her,” said Morales, who helped collect $2,016.43 in coins and small bills to help her people. She, like City Councilwoman Maria Quiñones-Sánchez and others, is outraged that the U.S. government hasn’t acted more quickly to help Puerto Rico.

“People are dying and starving, and Latinos are not being treated in the right way even though we’re American citizens,” she said.

Quiñones-Sánchez, who held a news conference Thursday evening laying out problems with the federal response to the disaster, was even more blunt about what she sees as offhand treatment of island citizens: “This speaks to the attitude that Puerto Rico is just a colony of the United States, an island of 3.4 million who are brown and speak a different language.”

She presented letters from members of Congress that, among other things, call for additional money for FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund; criticize the Trump administration for declaring a disaster in just 54 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities; request an immediate increase of Department of Defense personnel on the island; and propose a one-year waiver of the Jones Act, which ensures that only American-built vessels manned with American crews trade from one American port to another. The administration announced Thursday a 10-day waiver of the act.

Activists were planning a Friday night rally in Center City to demand that President Trump and other federal authorities immediately provide supplies to relieve Puerto Rico. Diaspora in Action and Voces Del Barrio called for a 6 p.m. start near City Hall.

While the federal government dawdles, “Puerto Ricans are sticking out their tongues trying to catch a few raindrops,” the groups said in a statement.

Aware of the complaints of slow progress in aiding his home island, Ivan Mejias, businessman and drag-race promoter, decided to act boldly.

Mejias, 57, who owns USA Auto Supplies in the Northeast, called for volunteers — Morales among them — to collect food, diapers, water, and other essentials to ship to Puerto Rico. People filled three large trucks, which Mejias then paid to have loaded into containers and placed on a ship in Pennsauken that’s scheduled to leave Thursday night.

“I gave my credit card and booked it,” Mejias said. “It cost a lot, but I won’t say how much. This came out of my heart. I know my people are hurting. I also gave money to Houston for their hurricane. They are also Americans who got hit hard.”

Money for the island continues to be collected all over.

College students across the United States, including groups at Pennsylvania State University, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Bryn Mawr College, and Villanova University, have mounted an online appeal for Puerto Rico, raising $124,000 of a $150,000 goal in seven days.

Buffalo-based M&T Bank, with nearly 200 branches in Pennsylvania, announced it will make a $300,000 donation to the American Red Cross to help victims of Hurricanes Maria and Irma and the Mexican earthquake.

Even restaurants are helping. Cuba Libre in Old City is holding an event called “Dine Out to Support Puerto Rico” on Friday, with 20 percent of proceeds from a $30 prix fixe meal going to help victims.

And Tierra Colombiana in North Philadelphia will provide the venue and food for a fund-raiser for the island as well as for Mexico. The restaurant expects to garner $30,000.

Ricky Cintron, the 26-year-old grandson of a man who came to Philadelphia from Puerto Rico in 1950, says it’s great that people are putting dollars together to help. But still he struggles to concentrate, work, or to shed his worry about his family on the island — two aunts and uncles, his grandmother, and loads of cousins.

“It’s extremely frustrating to not be able to do anything but sit and donate money,” said Cintron, office manager for the Germantown Mennonite Church in West Mount Airy. “I’ve had friends asking every day, ‘Have you heard anything?’ I have no idea when I’m going to hear from them. It could be months.”

For everyone, the waiting and watching have been excruciating.

But, said State Rep. Angel Cruz (D., Phila.), if possible, “people need to bring the anxiety down.”

And, he added, “the best thing for all this is to pray.”

Alfred Lubrano, Jeff Gammage, Staff Writer

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